By TOM WITHERS
The Associated Press
Friday, August 4, 2006; 3:57 PM
CLEVELAND -- He fought to keep the Cleveland Browns in town and kept LeBron James on the basketball court. Fred Nance is now preparing an argument that could make history _ for him and the NFL.
Nance, a prominent Cleveland attorney known for being tough and fair, is one of five finalists to succeed Paul Tagliabue as the league's commissioner, arguably the world's most high-profile executive position in sports.
Nance is also black, making his inclusion among the finalists an important moment for the NFL, which has been criticized in the past for its lack of diversity among coaches and other prominent front-office positions.
"He would make a fabulous commissioner," Browns owner Randy Lerner said. "He is totally qualified and demonstrated his qualifications when he played such a huge role in bringing the Browns back.
"He's got leadership, tenacity. He's got a love for the kind of impact teams have on the community. He gets it. I think he's a world-class guy."
Nance was picked as a finalist following an extensive search by a committee of eight owners headed by Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney and Carolina's Jerry Richardson.
"It's a landmark, and even if he (Nance) is not chosen, it's a good day for sports," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. "It shows we have gotten to the point where the best possible candidates, and in this case an African-American, are being considered."
There has never been a black commissioner in any of the major pro sports leagues. The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have all made strides in hiring practices, but none so far has made a minority its top decision maker.
Though Nance may be a long shot to lead the NFL, those who know the managing partner of Squire, Sanders and Dempsey best feel he would be the perfect choice.
"Every night I cross my fingers and pray the NFL makes the right decision and makes Fred Nance its commissioner," said former Cleveland Mayor Michael White, who worked with Nance on several major projects. "He is the total package. He is extremely bright. He has got vision and he has the unique ability to be able to turn extremely difficult situations into a win, win."
Kansas City Chiefs coach Herman Edwards doesn't believe Nance's candidacy should be viewed as anything but a qualified person getting an opportunity to advance. Edwards, who is black, looks forward to the day when race is not part of the equation.
"The first thing we have to realize is get the right guy," Edwards said. "If he happens to be a minority, that's great. But I think we always get on that platform of 'minority guy, minority guy.' We need to just say we got the best guy. And whatever nationality he is, he is.
"If he happens to be a minority, that's great. But the less we talk about it, the better it is when the guy gets the job, because then he's not looked upon as, well, 'The league is trying to be the first to do something.'"
Nance, 52, and the other four finalists _ favorite Roger Goodell, the league's chief operating officer; Gregg Levy, the league's outside counsel; Robert L. Reynolds, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Fidelity Investments; and Mayo A. Shattuck III, chairman of the board, president and CEO of Constellation Energy _ will each make presentations Aug. 7 in Chicago and be interviewed by owners and club executives.
The next commissioner must be approved by 22 of the league's 32 teams.
Nance said he was honored to be a finalist, but deferred further comment until after next week's meetings.
Nance's chances of taking over for Tagliabue could hinge on his ability to sway some undecided voters. As one of Cleveland's top lawyers, persuasiveness is one of his many traits.
Lerner said he wouldn't offer Nance any tips on how to impress pro football's top executives.
"He doesn't need any help in how to present himself," Lerner said. "He's far more qualified than I am. Fred knows exactly how to manage himself and he'll be great, I have no doubt about it. He's compelling. He's cheerful. He's upbeat."
He's a winner, too. In 2003, Nance won back James' eligibility after the NBA superstar was suspended by the Ohio High School Athletic Association for accepting gifts. He was the city's top negotiator for development at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and he recently led an effort to keep more than 1,000 military accounting jobs in Cleveland.
Nance first became known inside the NFL's huddle in 1995 when former Browns owner Art Modell, angry with city leaders because he couldn't get a new stadium built for his club, decided to move to Baltimore.
On the night before Modell publicly announced his intentions, Nance and White flew to New York to meet with Tagliabue. In the weeks and months to follow, Nance worked with the commissioner _ and Goodell _ to make sure Cleveland would not be forgotten and that football would one day return to one of the league's strongest markets.
It was during Cleveland's fight for the Browns when White realized Nance had special qualities.
"Fred is tireless," said White, who served was Cleveland's mayor from 1990-2001. "He's probably the only person I know who God gave 25 hours in a day to. I've also known a lot of lawyers, and Fred is one of the very few whom I call client-sensitive. He listens to people."
AP Sports Writer Doug Tucker contributed to this report.